Thursday, August 30, 2012


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The Man Who Japed, Philip K Dick, Ace Books, 1956, 172 pp

It is a post-nuclear war society run by a reactionary government that pushes a puritanical morality via the media. A Philip K Dick world if there ever was one. And this is only his third novel.

Jape is an intransitive verb meaning to say or do something jokingly or mockingly. Philip K Dick is a japer. It is also a transitive verb meaning to make mocking fun of. Alan Purcell, successful creator of propaganda, in a moment of madness, japes the statue of the current government's founder.

You can imagine the rest but reading the book is worth it because Philip K Dick wrote it. I am finally starting to figure out, though vaguely, his female characters. They are subtle commentaries on the effects of a straight-laced society on the female psyche.

Alan Purcell reminded me of Winston Smith in 1984. His moment of madness becomes his first attempt at freedom. How he finally breaks loose is the story.

Pretty good. I still like Solar Lottery best of the four I've read so far.

(The Man Who Japed is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand, Random House Inc, 2010, 398 pp

Surely I don't need to relate any details on the contents of Unbroken. I think everyone in the world has read it; definitely every book club/reading group has. Well, finally one of my reading groups picked it and of course they all loved it.

Among other things it falls into a genre I have named "prison camp lit." I feel that having made it through Andersonville, I have earned divine dispensation and never again need to read about prisoners of war sitting in shit eating not enough rotten food, etc, etc.

I also felt emotionally manipulated by Hillenbrand's rendering of this man's life.

It was too long and repetitive. It was uneven. And maybe I am just a hopeless cynic, but I could not quite swallow the "facts' about the guy's life. Spoiler: I am happy for him that Jesus saved him.

PS: If you still feel that you or your children should join the military and go off to fight one of our endless array of wars, you should read Unbroken. If after reading it you still believe that war is a solution...

(Unbroken is available on the adult non-fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 243 pp

I am a big fan of Steve Earle's music, so I had to read his first novel. It was OK.

The ghost of Hank Williams haunts the renegade Doc Ebersole, who kept Hank somewhat alive until he didn't. Doc is a bum, a doctor who has lost his license and lives on the edge of a Texas town. He gets by providing abortions and other medical services to skid row characters who for various reasons can't or won't go to a hospital. He is also a drug addict who kicks and is kept alive by a young Mexican girl-a sort-of angel/saint with healing powers.

Anyway, Earle has all the elements of a good Texas story and I think he made a worthy effort but did not quite pull it off. On the other hand, I have to admire a guy who kicked all his own nasty habits and keeps on keeping on with constant self-reinventions.

(I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor, Daw Books, 2010, 386 pp

Onyesonwu, the heroine of Who Fears Death, is an African young woman, engendered through the rape of her mother by a fierce soldier from an enemy tribe. Thus she is part of a generation of outcasts called Ewu who are half-breeds with light skin and hair, rejected by both tribes. Her heritage is one of anger and violence but she is no victim. Instead, due to a strong will and fearless nature she becomes a rarity: a female sorceress. Her name means "Who Fears Death?"

The novel is dark, exciting, dangerous and feminist. In a quasi-postapocalyptic setting (computers and handheld devices in the African villages) with added magical elements, it fits into that elusive category called slip-stream. 

I was held captive on every page by the heady brew of the characters, the setting, and some of the best plotting I have read in a while. Ms Okorafor's feminism is soundly embedded in humanism and she writes about love, passion, sex, loyalty, friendship, and violence with an astounding degree of competence, even wisdom.

Not since I first read books such as The Secret Garden, The Mists of Avalon, The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Robber Bride, have I been so completely seduced by an author. She leaps nimbly across the great divides of race, men/women, material/spiritual, and politics. I think she is probably a genius. There is no one I admire more than a female genius.

I proposed this book to one of my reading groups in another dastardly attempt to bust my fellow reading women out of their comfort zones. You know what? They were dubious but like good sports they all read it AND loved it. We discussed for almost two hours!

(Who Fears Death is available in several formats including paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 372 pp

Oh my god, I loved this book! I have a first edition hardcover with that cool black/gray, white, and gold cover and the black-edged pages. I bought it at City Lights when I was on my way home from hiking in the Redwoods and then left it sitting on my shelves for two years. After slogging through In the Garden of Beasts, I just wanted to read something I wanted to read, so I grabbed Our Tragic Universe, flopped onto my bed and practically stayed there until I had read to the end.

The whole story is so 21st century British, so off-the-beaten-track of even that, so literary in a non-literary way. Meg Carpenter (broke, writing book reviews and genre fiction to pay the rent while she works on her novel everyday but deletes everything she wrote the next day) is such a sympathetic character. She is like Anne Lamott without the Christianity and with an even more dry sense of humor. 

Plot is not the essence of this novel. It moves slowly. You want Meg to maybe have a little more grit or something but then she wouldn't be Meg. It's a novel about a novelist by a novelist and about being a novelist in an insane, uncaring world. It's about friendships and love and relationships but has an exactly zero mush factor. 

I haven't looked up any other reviews before writing my thoughts but I would say Our Tragic Universe might not please the wide majority of readers. It pleased me a great deal. It made me want to keep reading books when I was despairing about contemporary novels. It made me want to work on my own writing.

Best of all, by sort of blandly being true to herself, all good things come to Meg in the end. I did not expect a happy ending. (This is not a spoiler.) I wanted Meg to be happy but I would have understood had Scarlett Thomas decided to go another way. Possibly this is a book about faith--in yourself, in our tragic universe. If you are a writer, you owe it to yourself to read it.

(Our Tragic Universe is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


A Burnt-Out Case, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1960, 248 pp

Some people complain about Graham Greene always writing the same story: a combination of doubts about God and marital infidelity. He writes so well, it doesn't bother me in the least. Most great writers explore the same territory for their entire career, turning the subject like a precious stone, shedding light on every facet. 

Querry is a fugitive from his own life. He had been a successful architect, achieving fame for his cathedrals. His years of womanizing had led him to decide he was incapable of loving anyone.

Therefore he has taken himself to the back-end of nowhere deep in the heart of the Congo darkness. Of course, a newspaperman finds him, giving Greene a chance to riff on reporters, the press, and the gullibility of the public. More importantly, Querry does find a kindred spirit in Dr Colin, physician to a monastery devoted to serving God through lepers. Dr Colin is an atheist and a gifted healer of more than leprosy.

I have read every novel Greene wrote from 1940 to 1960 and can attest that he continues to confound me. I had some idea of where he was going in this novel, but he went somewhere else. The end took me by surprise.

A "burnt-out case" is a leper who can only be considered cured after the disease has eaten away all that can be eaten away. The victim lives but cannot usually re-enter society. Querry is a moral leper who calls himself "cured."

(A Burnt-Out Case is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Jean and Johnny, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow, 1959, 247 pp


Jean and Johnny is the third of Cleary's novels for young adults. For me it did not have the magic of Fifteen or The Luckiest Girl. Even so, she captured pretty exactly the feelings of a 14-year-old girl who wonders whether or not a boy likes her. I especially could relate to the phenomenon of becoming completely tongue-tied when in the presence of said boy.

What bothered me was how passive Jean would be in any situation concerning Johnny. She was so blind to how much of a self-centered player he was. I am aware that I was the same way at that age but I am not proud of it.

I am pleased to say that my granddaughter, who just turned 14, is much more self-possessed. We HAVE come a long way baby!

(Jean and Johnny is available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order as an eBook.)

Thursday, August 02, 2012


Last Will, Bryn Greenwood, Stairway Press, 2012, 279 pp

I don't recall how this book came to my attention. Stairway Press is the tiniest of indie publishers and the only unfortunate result of that is a possible lack of publicity. Because this is a great novel that falls just enough off the beaten track of current fiction to make it refreshingly unique. 

Bernie Raleigh is a 30-year-old man to whom nothing good has ever happened. He is the grandson and sole heir of the richest man in Oklahoma City. Kidnapped when he was almost 10 by a local psychopath hoping for a large ransom, he was traumatized, psychoanalyzed to no avail, rejected by his mother, and grew up to be a useless failure. He finally found a job he liked as a librarian and had been hiding away in Kansas City. Then his grandfather dies and Bernie finds himself back in the Raleigh mansion, the loneliest and most confused billionaire in the world.

Meda Amos is a direct descendant of two Russian immigrant sisters who were forced to turn to prostitution when their parents died of influenza in the 1800s. Teenagers in a frontier town, without relatives or friends, they had no other resources. Meda is blessed and cursed with great beauty, making her a magnet to men but also a victim. She is raising a daughter, working as a maid at the mansion, living with her aging grandmother and trying to look out for her alcoholic mom, who believes in UFOs and alien abduction.

Last Will is an almost perfect summer read, because it is a romance set in the freezing cold Oklahoma winter. With exquisite wry tenderness, Bryn Greenwood has written a modern Cinderella tale in three first person voices: Bernie, Meda, and Aunt Ginny, who is Bernie's aunt but is really his guardian angel/fairy godmother. As soon as I turned the last page, I wanted to go to the beginning and read it all over again. I suspect I may reread this captivating story many times in the years to come.

It took Ms Greenwood a decade to get her first novel published. Only the mysterious ways of publishing can explain such a thing. She makes you love her characters, introducing them so smoothly I felt I already knew them and would never forget them. The back-stories of Bernie and Meda are revealed in bits but so expertly, giving out details only as needed to further the plot.

Because of his past, Bernie's depression and wish to be anonymous combine with the unconscious assurance of the rich, making him an unpredictable mix of hapless kindness and hopeless estrangement from others. Because of her past, Meda is tough, wise beyond her years, but oh so conflicted about the attentions of this young man with all that money. Watching them grope towards understanding as they help each other heal is maddening but irresistible. 

Last Will may not be great literature but it is consummate storytelling. In another era, it may have been great literature in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, George Eliot, or Jane Austen. This is a deeply engaging tale of love, money, tragedy, and society with a healthy dose of humor and a healthy respect for humanity. So curl up with the A/C on or by the pool and lose yourself in a good read!

(Last Will is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, Crown Publishing Group, 2011, 365 pp

Here is another book I would not have read if not for a reading group. So why do I read books I don't particularly like for these groups? Some members just choose not to read certain picks. Three reasons: 

1) I feel it is part of being a member to come to discussions prepared to discuss.
2) I am interested in how other readers react to books whether I like them or not, because I am both a writer and a book reviewer.
3) For the same reason that I read the Top 10 bestsellers of each year in My Big Fat Reading Project: to learn about the social factors which make books widely read.

Erik Larson is not my favorite non-fiction writer. I read The Devil in the White City (also for a reading group) and was bothered by the odd juxtaposition of a serial killer true crime story with the history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In the Garden of Beasts combines the growth of Hitler's power with the sad case of a US diplomat. For added thrill and sex appeal, Larson includes the adventures of the diplomat's promiscuous daughter.

Many readers in my reading groups and among the reading public like Larson's books just fine. I have been left both times with a confused palate, as if I have eaten a meal of foods that don't go well with each other.

Because I have read pretty widely about the rise of Hitler and the dastardly ways of the Nazis, I felt that Larson's story construction rather downplayed the insanity of all that. In addition, the inefficiencies and faults in our diplomatic corps, about which the author goes on ad nauseum, were hardly the major cause of Hitler's igniting the Second World War, but the book suggests as much.

Finally, William E Dodd, ambassador to Germany from late 1933 until 1937, was not an especially interesting character. To center a book about the years leading up to WWII around such a lackluster man was a bad idea in my opinion. If he hadn't had that wild daughter Martha, who ran around Berlin having serial affairs with members of the Gestapo, a Russian diplomat, and other colorful fellows, In the Garden of Beasts would have bogged down early and never recovered.

(In the Garden of Beasts is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)